Monday, July 25, 2011

Steve Walsh - Glossolalia

WARNING! People who suffer from a heart condition or severe depression should listen to this CD with the greatest of caution!!!

When I first popped this disc in my CD player, I was waiting at a bus stop near the post office where I had received it. By the time the bus arrived, I was barely able to remain standing! I had been warned that this solo album by Kansas front man Steve Walsh would be a mind-boggling experience, and my fellow fans were right! I was stunned, in awe, and totally overwhelmed by the end of the first song!

I’m known for being critical of Steve’s songwriting skills. Perhaps I compare him to Kerry Livgren unfairly. Steve has not always had the same depth and insight as his former band-mate in the distant past. However, all that has changed in recent years. I am very pleased with Steve’s efforts on the Freaks of Nature and Always Never the Same CDs, but now he has gone a step, no, a LEAP, further to search the deepest, darkest depths of his soul. So much pain and agony are purged on this album, creating his most powerful material ever!

It’s very hard to describe Glossolalia because it’s impossible to categorize its songs. It has a little bit of everything, from alternative to country to rap to where it turns you inside out and upside down! Fasten your seat belts... it’s going to be a bumpy ride!

The first song is the title track, which rips your brain into shreds immediately with its sharp death-metal edge. Before you have time to recover, you are sent into emotional despair in “Serious Wreckage”, and then tossed onto a dance floor in a disco-rap thriller called “Heart Attack”. Listen to the way Steve’s voice cracks in “Serious Wreckage” (a song about a drunk driver who has killed a child) with the line "Don’t tell me it’s alright, don’t tell me it’s going to be fine." If you still have any sanity left, you suddenly realize this is Steve Walsh...sweet, little "Dust-In-the-Wind" Stevie from Kansas! We always knew he had a dark side, but this is very extreme!

The song “Kansas” continues the emotional roller coaster as a beautiful, eerie tribute to American Indians. The music and the mood in this song are amazing, especially the piano and drums. In fact, the whole composition is breathtaking! Its spooky ending shocked me at first, but now I’m used to it. Don’t play this song around small children; the angry voice will give them nightmares! Read the lyrics to them instead. (Or even better, read the book "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee" to them!)

While the shock of Kansas still resonates in your bones, the countryish “Nothing” brings you down real fast. It is so bleak and depressing, you almost want to skip it, but by now you’re addicted, sucked into the twisted anguish that Steve is expressing. This song will make you feel helpless, unable to ease his pain.

Next we have my favorite track on the album, “Haunted Man”! This song pulled me in the first time I heard it because of the deep, tortured lyrics, but when I noticed him screaming in the background, I literally gasped out loud! (Lord knows what my fellow bus riders thought of me, sitting there with my eyes round as saucers and my jaw on the floor!) The desperation in this song is very compelling and traumatic. If you are an empathetic person, you will have a difficult time holding back tears.

If that one doesn’t convince you of Steve’s deep misery, get ready for a punch in the stomach! “Smacking the Clowns”, a song about a circus burning down, is a tale that will haunt you for the rest of your life. You will be on the floor in a fetal position by the time his voice cracks during the line..."Maybe the old cliché isn’t far from true. Maybe there’s a silver lining." I go into a cold sweat just thinking about this song, even when I’m not playing it! I am totally serious and sincere when I say that this is the best piece of work Steve has ever written in his entire musical career!

Finally, we get some relief with a change of mood! “That’s What Love’s All About” is a fun, funky, hard-rocking love song that makes you want to jump up and dance! (I actually do in my living room!) It’s a very sexy song, and it gives me a delicious chill up my spine whenever I hear it. Play this song deserves to be heard by your neighbors!

Just when you’re hoping that the positive vibe will carry on, along comes a depressing, bittersweet ballad to bring you down again. By the time you are halfway through the bluesy “Mascara Tears”, you won’t know whether to commit suicide or run out and have sex with the nearest suitable partner! Your mind will be lost, caught in a vortex that offers no escape! Great piano work here, by the way. Steve has never lost his great keyboarding skills!

Finishing out the album is a more relaxing, sensual song called “Rebecca”, a nod to a great novel of the same name. I especially love the gurgling sounds at the beginning, as if Steve actually were underwater..very chilling! (I recommend the original Hitchcock movie to curious listeners.)

I can’t end this review without giving great applause to Mike Slamer, the lead guitarist on this remarkable album! What cave has he been living in, that the world knows virtually nothing about him?! How can any human being play guitar the way he does on “Smacking the Clowns”, much less any of the other songs on Gloss? (Mike Slamer also played guitar for Steve's former band, Streets, and on the Seventh Key albums, sung by Kansas bassman, Billy Greer.)

Congratulations, you have survived Glossolalia! As a prize, you get your sanity back, but you are a changed person forever. This album is much better than a day at Disneyland! With one amazing song after another, you are laughing one minute and crying the next. I try not to play this too often to keep its shock value fresh, but sometimes, I just can’t help’s too addictive!

More than ever now, Steve Walsh has my deepest respect and admiration, not just as a musician and songwriter, but also as a human being. I used to roll my eyes while listening to his cheesy songs on the Kansas albums Power and In the Spirit of Things, but the man has totally grown, changed, and matured with Glossolalia. I urge potential listeners to be prepared for its intensity!

Steve Walsh - Schemer Dreamer

Track List:

1.  Schemer Dreamer/That's All Right (5:25)
2.  Get Too Far (4:32)
3.  So Many Nights (4:23)
4.  You Think You've Got It Made (4:21)
5.  Every Step of the Way (8:34)
6.  Just How It Feels (3:43)
7.  Wait Until Tomorrow (5:59)

Schemer Dreamer is the first solo album by Kansas front man, Steve Walsh. It is basically a mainstream rock album with limited prog elements and only one song that would remind the listener of Kansas. However, I feel it is unfair to compare this endeavor to Kansas; after all, it is a solo album! As it stands alone, it’s not a bad effort on Steve’s part, especially if you remove any thoughts of Kansas from the mix.

He starts off by purging some angst on the title as a rock star isn’t so glamorous when you have to deal with difficult people! The song has a good rocking beat, however, and a nice cover of Elvis’s “That’s All Right” at the end. Steve’s frustration continues with Get Too Far. It seems he was angry at EVERYTHING back in those days! The flute is a nice touch, however. (Or is that a keyboard trick?)

I don’t cringe at the next song. In fact, I remember liking “So Many Nights” a lot when this album came out. The sweet melody makes up for the overly sentimental lyrics, but I believe Steve was being sincere with these words. This is one of his better love songs. In sharp contrast, “You Think You Got It Made” seems to be a leftover from the bitter songs her wrote for Audio-Visions. Oddly enough, I can’t tell if he’s singing to another person or singing to himself!

The next track is my favorite on the album! “Every Step of the Way” is an intense, introspective autobiography of his life on the road. It’s a sweet rocker, musically, and he shows great maturity in the lyrics. Awesome guitars here, plus a touch of Kansas-like organ, to boot! This is a much better glimpse of our ‘young Steve’. It’s a great song!

The introspection continues on “Just How It Feels”. In fact, I believe it to be one of the finest songs he’s ever written! At first, I didn’t think it fit on this album, but then I realized that Schemer Dreamer is all about reflection of his life. How strange that way back then, he was experienced enough to be so contemplative and sentimental. The violin is very pretty.

Albums were way too short back in those days, especially non-prog productions. The last song “Wait Until Tomorrow” is the only prog song on Schemer Dreamer, but it’s a very nice tribute to the genre that made Steve a star. This one could easily fit on a Kansas album, in spite of its gloomy lyrics. Killer guitars and great vocalization here, but it all ends too soon!

The kid done good on his first solo effort, even if half of the songs are too "whiney". He was too young for that "woe is me" mentality...that came much later in his wild life!

Kansas - Freaks of Nature

Track List:

1.  I Can Fly (5:21)
2.  Desperate Times (5:25)
3.  Hope Once Again (4:34)
4.  Black Fathom 4 (4:34)
5.  Under the Knife (4:54)
6.  Need (3:59)
7.  Freaks of Nature (4:05)
8.  Cold Grey Morning (4:14)
9.  Peaceful and Warm (4:14)

I like to refer to Freaks of Nature as the album that saved Kansas. After a seven-year dry spell of no new material, the band gets hit with a thunderbolt in 1995. David Ragsdale enters, Steve Morse departs, and Steve Walsh greatly improves his songwriting! His lyrics no longer whine about the women who have dumped him. Instead, he launches a new era of healing and self-discovery, finally maturing in his mid-40s.

Amazing and refreshing, Freaks of Nature tantalizes all the senses, due mainly to the intensity of the music and the seriousness of the lyrics. It’s a heavy album, but has upbeat moments all throughout. From beginning to end, it takes you on a wild ride and leaves you feeling wobbly afterward, as if you had just ridden a very thrilling roller coaster! As a hard rock album, there isn’t much ‘Classic Kansas’ here, although the title cut sounds a lot like the song “Belexes” from their first album. There are bits of proggy moments in various songs, most notably in “Hope Once Again” and “Cold Grey Morning”.

Thank God the violin has returned, even if it isn't Robby Steinhardt. David Ragsdale really shines here. I can’t say enough good things about him. Not only did he co-write several of the songs, but he plays lead guitar on the title cut. I don’t need to keep emphasizing my appreciation for his unique style on the violin, but I can’t help being impressed by such deep, emotional talent. He must have eaten a good breakfast every morning before going into the recording studio because the energy he puts out on this album is unbelievable.

Freaks of Nature hits hard from the beginning with “I Can Fly”, a song that could humble the most modern metal head, and continues with terrific sequencing all the way through to the painfully wistful “Peaceful and Warm”, which is one of the best songs Steve has ever written! Rags does beautiful work at the ending...the entire song can choke me up at times.

The sweet and slow “Hope Once Again” is a big fan favorite, and “Black Fathom 4” and the title cut keep you rocking in spite of their dark lyrics. Equally dark is “Under the Knife”, which I suspect is an autobiographical view of Steve’s painful road to addiction recovery. The lyrics on “Cold Grey Morning” are severely depressing, one of the bleakest songs Kerry Livgren has ever created for Kansas, but the soaring proggish elements in the music save it from the skip button.

My favorite song on this album is “Desperate Times” because of its wild tempo and odd lyrics. Fans might joke about rocket sleds, but I think it adds a cool sci-fi feel to the song. Steve’s vocal echoes at the end send chills up my spine! Kudos to Phil Ehart for the excellent drum solo, too brief as it was. He needs to show off his amazing skills more often, ala “Incomudro”!

The darkness of this album is balanced by the pure emotion of the music. The frankness and honesty of the lyrics are a testament to the growth and healing that Steve was going through at the time. Ragsdale’s intensity pulls it all together.

Overall, it was an awesome experiment with a different sound, yet it fit in well with the alternative and new metal movements of the 90s. Freaks of Nature is a damn fine album and would have sold millions had it gotten radio airplay. All of its songs are strong, effective, and fascinating. It remains one of my favorite Kansas albums of all time.

Kansas - Point of Know Return

Track List:

1.   Point of Know Return – 3:13
2.   Paradox – 3:50
3.   The Spider – 2:05
4.   Portrait (He Knew) – 4:38
5.   Closet Chronicles – 6:31
6.   Lightning's Hand – 4:24
7.   Dust in the Wind – 3:28
8.   Sparks of the Tempest – 4:18
9.   Nobody's Home – 4:40
10. Hopelessly Human - 7:17

This is as "classic" as Classic Kansas gets! Point of Know Return was met with such high acclaim in 1977, even some of the snooty kids at my high school were known to have owned it! It’s pure prog all the way through. In fact, it sounds like one long song, the tale of a fantastic journey through time and space. This is the way prog should me, anyway. Like the two albums that sandwich it (Leftoverture and Monolith), there are no "skip" songs on this one. In fact, I call these three albums "The Big Three" because they showcase the band at its finest!

This is one of the most popular album covers of all time in the music industry. Just about every die-hard Kansas fan has the t-shirt, and a few brave souls sport a tattoo of the ship going over the edge. I especially love the pencil sketches of the band members...six handsome, talented men who rocked my world all those years ago!

Point of Know Return starts off with the title track, a fantastic song that invites the listener into the storyteller’s mind, sort of like that poem we all had to learn in high school, "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner", only the ending is less gruesome. Even I, as a female, have dreamed of sailing away to some point of "no" return. I guess its part of my adventurous spirit.

The fun continues with “Paradox”...there is no way you can sit still for this one! I’ve seen early concert clips of Steve Walsh bouncing all over the stage during this song, and it’s no wonder! The violin is fierce...both Robby Steinhardt and David Ragsdale smoke seriously on this one! The lyrics continue in the adventurous vein...both Kerry Livgren and Steve Walsh must have been eating plenty of oatmeal when they wrote the songs for this album. It’s too bad they don’t perform this one live anymore. I would certainly love to see it, but I suppose Steve would need a lot more oatmeal these days!

Next is a song I like to call "the primordial soup" of all Kansas songs. “The Spider” is an instrumental that incorporates all the basics that Kansas had created and performed up until that time. Our little Stevie done damn good with this one! I can’t help wondering if he was channeling Keith Emerson at the time he wrote it! My only regret is that “The Spider” is way too short. I could use another 10 minutes of this, at least!

“Portrait (He Knew)” is a great song, too, but I’m not as crazy for this one. Perhaps I am not into biographical tunes, even though Einstein was a pretty cool dude! (I am known to be fussy about lyrics, a trait most poets have, I suppose.) It’s got a good, rocking beat, but it just doesn’t turn my crank as much as other Kansas songs do. Likewise, “Closet Chronicles”, another biographical song, leaves me lacking, too. However, let me go on record by saying that the music on this track is phenomenal! The entire band showcases their awesome talents as individual musicians, and for this reason alone, I do not skip this song. Still, though, the mundane lyrics are about a mundane man...Howard Hughes never thrilled me.

“Lighting’s Hand” is the hard rock song of the album. This fun, little fantasy takes you out the depression caused by “Closet Chronicles” and gives you a “Belexes”-style beat that makes you bop around your living room...well, MY living room, anyway! Robby’s voice is exceptional, as always. Kudos to Steve for cool lyrics, too.

So now we come to the song that made Kansas a household name. There can’t possibly be a soul on the planet over the age of 30 who has not heard “Dust In the Wind”! (I bet they even know this song in Outer Mongolia!) Every mother has sung it to her babies, and many funerals conclude with it, thus it is heard at the beginning of life and at the end. We die-hard fans may be a little tired of it, but Kansas isn't Kansas without this song.

“Sparks of the Tempest” is another staple of the Kansas diet, an all-around good song with great musical elements and dark lyrics to make you ponder. Although it is not one of my favorites, it’s a "piece of the same", fitting in with the adventurous theme of the album. However, the next song does not quite fit in as well. I find “Nobody’s Home” to be somewhat depressing lyrically. It does have a pleasant rhythm to it, though, which keeps me from skipping it. Robby’s violin is very sweet here. It would be a pretty song if the words weren’t so miserable!

“Hopelessly Human” makes up for that, though! It’s an achingly beautiful song, and Kerry’s lyrics give us hope in our humanity, instead of the bleakness of a dead Earth on the previous song. It’s very inspirational and contemplative, one of his best songs ever! The music is terrific here, too, mixing slow and fast elements that are conducive to good Prog rock. The bells at the end are a nice, little touch. It was very difficult to choose a favorite song on this album, but this one is it for me!

And so we have here an album that has stood the test of time, remaining a favorite throughout the decades, not just of hardcore fans, but mainstream listeners as well. It was a favorite of mine for quite some time during the late 70s and helped me through some tough times back then. I'm glad it's still around today!

Kansas - Masque

Track List:
1.  It Takes a Woman's Love (To Make a Man) – 3:08
2.  Two Cents Worth - 3:08
3.  Icarus - Borne on Wings of Steel – 6:03
4.  All the World – 7:11
5.  Child of Innocence – 4:36
6.  It's You – 2:31
7.  Mysteries and Mayhem – 4:18
8.  The Pinnacle – 9:44

was surprised to find out that the band is not particularly fond of this album! In addition to the ‘big four’ (“Icarus”, “Child of Innocence”, “Mysteries and Mayhem”, and “The Pinnacle”), I believe there is a lot to be proud of here. While the "Big Four" are staples in the regular Kansas diet, other treats should not be overlooked.

The distinct southern rock/pop sound was very popular in the mid-70s, and Masque fit right in with the opening cuts, “It Takes A Woman’s Love (to Make a Man)” and bluesy “Two Cents Worth”. “It Takes A Woman’s Love” has been vilified by many Kansas fans, but I actually like it! Normally, I’m a big critic of Steve Walsh’s love songs, but this time, the fun and funky beat seem to jibe well with the lyrics. The piano work on this song is excellent! Too bad it did not go very far as a hit single.

I like to call “All the World” the band’s ‘hippie song’. The lyrics are beautiful and reflect the politics of that era. The violin is incredible, too. While some might find it ‘mushy’ by today's standards, it's still a strong song to give us hope for world peace.

The magical genius of Kerry Livgren is so evident with the ‘big four’; I feel he truly was honing his songwriting skills on this album. “Icarus” instantly became my favorite Kansas song the moment I first heard it. Robby’s violin is fantastic, and the guitars do not disappoint. I truly loved this song at that time and still do today!

“Child of Innocence” is a powerful song, both musically and lyrically, and the hard rocking “Mysteries and Mayhem” is over the top (and a personal favorite of mine). The popularity of these two songs alone should have made this album more successful. “The Pinnacle” is a slower song, but nevertheless, sends chills up my spine with its strong, creative imagery! It is obvious that Kerry was seriously exploring Christianity at this time, but somehow, these songs are not a turn-off for most non-believers. The lyrics can speak to anybody; one of the reasons Kerry is one of my favorite all-time songwriters!

So, what’s the problem here, guys? I don’t see a problem at all! This is just another great Kansas album that rocks my socks! The ‘big four’s prog sound mixes well with the other funky, bluesy songs and balances out the whole album. Masque has a flavor that needs to be tasted more often.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Porcupine Tree - Stupid Dream

Release Year: 1999
Track List:
1. Even Less (7:11)
2. Piano Lessons (4:21)
3. Stupid Dream (0:28)
4. Pure Narcotic (5:02)
5. Slave Called Shiver (4:41)
6. Don't Hate Me (8:30)
7. This Is No Rehearsal (3:27)
8. Baby Dream In Cellophane (3:15)
9. Stranger By the Minute (4:31)
10. A Smart Kid (5:22)
11. Tinto Brass (6:17)
12. Stop Swimming (6:35)

At first, I was only a casual Porcupine Tree fan. I owned In Absentia and Deadwing and knew they were special albums. I even saw the band in concert. in 2005. However, I had put PT on the back burner simply because fully embracing them would take up a lot of my time and emotion.

Then I heard Stupid Dream, and my heart was broken.

From the first song, “Even Less”, to the last, “Stop Swimming”, I was caught up in a drama that turned out to reflect my own life story. The lyrics are deep, honest, sincere, and painful. Who is this Steven Wilson and how can he possibly know my pain?

Stupid Dream is pure, raw emotion that cuts deep into my soul, releases all the negative energy I have stored, and makes me clean and whole once again.

While the music is sweet and dreamy, it falls far short of being cheesy. In fact, there are brief moments when the guitars actually "rock", but Porcupine Tree can't be defined as a rock band, or an alternative band, or even a prog band, for that matter.

There isn't a bad song on this album. My favorites are “Pure Narcotic”, “Don't Hate Me”, and “Tinto Brass”, which has to be one of the coolest instrumentals I have ever heard.

Originally released in 1999, this virtually unknown treasure was recently remastered in 5.1 surround sound and high-resolution 24-bit stereo. It sounds pure and clear on my cheap CD player, so it must sound heavenly on proper stereo equipment.

So now I consider myself a true fan of this wonderful, creative band, and will continue to collect their works. Stupid Dream, however, has become my favorite PT album and will likely remain so.

If you are unsure about liking this album, take a chance and buy it anyway. I don't understand how any sentient being could not be moved by this beautiful, sensual music.

Genesis - Wind and Wuthering

Release Year: 1976

Track List:
1. Eleventh Earl of Mar (7:39)
2. One for the Vine (9:59)
3. Your Own Special Way (6:15)
4. Wot Gorilla? (3:12)
5. All in a Mouse's Night (6:35)
6. Blood on the Rooftops (5:20)
7. Unquiet Slumbers for the Sleepers… (2:23)
8. In That Quiet Earth (4:50)
9. Afterglow (4:10)

There was a time when I considered myself a Genesis fan. This was long ago, in the late 70s/early 80s, when progressive music was giving way to arena rock and hair metal. I wallowed in the ecstasy of Duke and drifted off to “Home By the Sea”, but as Genesis became more and more pop, I made a 180-degree turn. By the late 80s, they had lost the magic.

It didn't occur to me at the time to explore their earlier works... albums from Foxtrot up through Trick of the Tail. I had discovered Genesis with And Then They Were Three in the summer of 1978, and never gave a thought to who the fourth and fifth band members had been. Peter Gabriel became a huge solo artist and Steve Hackett a less famous one, but my mind was on the wonderful music Phil, Tony, and Mike were making... for awhile anyway.

In recent years, I have returned to my progressive rock roots and discovered it had not died in the 1980s after all. I have found a vast universe of music waiting to be explored, and I have had a wonderful journey so far. This genre of music has introduced me to many terrific new friends, some who have encouraged me to discover the REAL Genesis, and Wind & Wuthering was suggested as my starting point. I was also informed that this album is related, more or less, to the novel Wuthering Heights, which ironically happens to be my favorite novel of all time!

This version of Genesis contains Phil Collins, Steve Hackett, Mike Rutherford, and Tony Banks... four, not yet three. ;-)

So, decades after its original release, Wind and Wuthering finally arrived in my mailbox. After reading the lyrics in the booklet, I was a confused at first. It seems that all the songs are about war, not timeless love! Ah, but look closely and remember the novel it is based on... two souls locked in a passionate battle with each other, both with too much pride to admit their deepest affections until it's too late.

This appears to be Tony Banks' album. His beautiful keyboard work is all over every song, from soaring synthesizers to sweet piano, turning gruesome lyrics into haunting melodies, along with Phil's smooth voice and Steve's distinctive guitar.

This is a sensual, dramatic, passionate album, no doubt about it. “One for the Vine”, “All in A Mouse's Night”, and even “Wot Gorilla” show off Tony's amazing flexibility on the keys. However, Hackett's song, “Blood On the Rooftops”, is the clear winner here. Take away the ‘modern’ lyrics, and you find the song is incredibly sweet.
I especially love “Your Own Special Way”. Following the allusion to Wuthering Heights, the lyrics make me think of Heathcliff crying out to Cathy's ghost... "don't ever leave me!"

I see subtle connections to the novel everywhere, whether or not that was intentional by the band. It's my belief that the last song, “Afterglow”, represents Heathcliff the best. This line gives me chills... "But I, I would search everywhere just to hear your call, and walk upon stranger roads than this one. In a world I used to know before, I miss you more." While I admire “Blood On the Rooftops”, I think “Afterglow” is my favorite song on Wind and Wuthering. It's a good way to end the album.

Before “Afterglow”, though, there are two short instrumentals that will break your heart, even if you don't know the story... “Unquiet Slumbers for the Sleepers” and “In That Quiet Earth” (the second song not so quiet.. this is a very proggy tune!). These are references to our romantic couple that wander the ghostly Yorkshire moors, together at last, yet in death.

I don't know how many people experience this kind of love... the kind that burrows down deep into your soul and psyche, beyond obsession, and lasts beyond the grave, but somehow Genesis captured its essence and set it to music. Even if you are not empathetic or understanding to the passion of the story, you will at least understand the passion in the music.

I am enjoying exploring the earlier Genesis and finding a treasure trove of wonderful music. Wind and Wuthering is just the tip of a beautiful iceberg!